It was 1946, a time of post-war euphoria – Ben Chifley was Australia’s prime minister, King George VI headed up the monarchy and the baby boom was just beginning. After two world wars and the Great Depression, things were finally looking up.
Opal miner Jack Bartram, a farmer who had been forced off his land during the depression, saw huge potential at the recently-discovered Eight Mile field in Coober Pedy, South Australia. He suggested his children and their families join him in the region to try their luck. Eight Mile proved to be a prolific field for many, including the Bartram family. The epitome of their success was the discovery by Jack’s son Walter Bartram of an almost 5,000-carat, 998-gram opal dubbed the Fire of Australia. According to the Federal Government’s Department of Communications and the Arts, the Fire of Australia is valued at an estimated $900,000 and believed to be the most valuable piece of rough opal in existence.
The gemstone’s exceptional quality is said to be highlighted by its vibrant colour, which changes from green to yellow to red – a rare opal hue – depending on the angle from which it is viewed. There is no known example of another gemstone of this size consisting entirely of gem-quality opal, a statement released by the Department of Communications and the Arts notes.
“Even though there have been large finds in other areas, this was the initial and most significant find in the opal industry in South Australia at that time,” says Walter’s son Alan Bartram, who also works in the family trade. “It was quite shallow ground and they were able to mine virtually from the surface down to about 14 feet.”
The Bartram family triumph
Alan Bartram states most people working in the area were successful to some extent; however, his family was ‘very’ successful.
“[Artist and author] Jack Absalom, in one of his programs, referred to the Bartram brothers at the Eight Mile at Coober Pedy taking it [opal] away in banana crates at that time,” he says. “To some extent that wasn’t too exaggerated.”
The Fire of Australia remained untouched, apart from the polishing of two faces to reveal its quality, and in the Bartram family for the next 70 years.
Alan Bartram explains that the gemstone was initially kept in his parent’s house before it was placed on display in the family’s former jewellery store The Opal Mine in Adelaide. The opal also spent time in a bank safety deposit.
Following Walter Bartram’s death and after witnessing the increasing popularity of the opal in overseas exhibitions, the family decided to transfer it to the South Australian Museum in Adelaide early this year for a ‘reduced’ rate of $500,000.
The goal was to secure the opal’s legacy in Australia and prevent it from overseas buyers who might cut it into smaller gemstones.
“In thinking about why we retained it, it was more or less the centre of our business,” Alan Bartram says. “It’s an inspiring piece and, although I’ve been a trader for 55 years and I’ve been exposed to an awful lot of opal in that time, nothing has exceeded this one.
“We are very happy the South Australian Museum could purchase the Fire of Australia opal at a much-reduced rate. It was what we wanted because it is so South Australian and it reflects the outstanding nature of this piece.”
Unsurprisingly, South Australian Museum mineral collections manager Ben McHenry is pleased with the latest acquisition, which was made possible by a $455,000 Federal Government grant.
“South Australia is known as the opal capital of the world because we have produced up to 80 per cent of the world’s precious opal, so it’s quite important for the South Australian Museum to actually have representative material of our state and national gemstone,” McHenry explains.
“It’s the finest piece of quality opal rough found in existence,” he says of the Fire of Australia, “and it’s an Australian national treasure. It’s for all Australians to see whereas, if it were in private hands, it would be sitting in somebody’s safe somewhere. It would be a shame if something as amazing as this was kept out of the public domain.”
McHenry states the Fire of Australia was hugely popular among the general public at a recent exhibition conducted by the museum and also enjoyed pride of place in the museum foyer until the end of February. The gemstone now resides in the museum’s permanent opal collection.
Of course, Australia is blessed with opal riches and the Fire of Australia is not the country’s only celebrated gemstone.
The Olympic Australis, which was also unearthed at Eight Mile field and is now housed in Sydney store Altmann and Cherny, is reported to be the largest and most valuable gem-quality opal ever found. It weighs 3.45 kg and 17,000 carats and was valued at $2.5 million in 2005.
McHenry says the Bartram family’s legacy complements the museum’s other treasure, the Virgin Rainbow, which is said to be the world’s most valuable cut and polished opal. “It’s nice to have two of the best pieces of opal ever found, [and we hope] to have an opal gallery here at the museum in the future,” he says.
There’s no doubt opals and opal jewellery have battled negative connotations in Australia but Wayne Sedawie, a spokesperson for the Opal Association, says public display of the Fire of Australia will help to improve the perception and value of opals locally.
“Opals mostly go to America, China, Russia and lots of other countries but not Australia,” he says. “Having and promoting this opal is brilliant; it’s educational for Australians as they don’t know about opals. The compound effect of putting it on display for the public means people will talk about it and may decide to visit Coober Pedy and possibly buy opals.”
As any jeweller selling any kind of gemstone knows, this is a rare image-building trifecta.